418 U.S. 405 (1974), 72-1690, Spence v. Washington

Docket Nº:No. 72-1690
Citation:418 U.S. 405, 94 S.Ct. 2727, 41 L.Ed.2d 842
Party Name:Spence v. Washington
Case Date:June 25, 1974
Court:United States Supreme Court

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418 U.S. 405 (1974)

94 S.Ct. 2727, 41 L.Ed.2d 842




No. 72-1690

United States Supreme Court

June 25, 1974

Argued January 9, 1974



For displaying out of his apartment window a United States flag upside down with a peace symbol taped thereto, appellant was convicted under Washington's "improper use" statute forbidding the exhibition of a United States flag to which is attached or superimposed figures, symbols, or other extraneous material. He testified without contradiction at his trial that he thus displayed his flag as a protest against then-recent actions in Cambodia and fatal events at Kent State University, and that his purpose was to associate the American flag with peace instead of war and violence. The Washington Supreme Court sustained the conviction, rejecting appellant's contention, inter alia, that the improper use statute, on its face and as applied, contravened the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Held: The statute, as applied to appellant's activity, impermissibly infringed a form of protected expression.

81 Wash.2d 788, 506 P.2d 293, reversed.

Per curiam opinion.


Appellant displayed a United States flag, which he owned, out of the window of his apartment. Affixed to both surfaces of the flag was a large peace symbol fashioned of removable tape. Appellant was convicted under a Washington statute forbidding the exhibition of a United States flag to which is attached or superimposed figures, symbols, or other extraneous material. The Supreme Court of Washington affirmed appellant's

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conviction. 81 Wash.2d 788, 506 P.2d 293 (1973). It rejected appellant's contentions that the statute under which he was charged, on its face and as applied, contravened the First Amendment, as incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment, and was void for vagueness. We noted probable Jurisdiction. 414 U.S. 815 (1973). We reverse on the ground that, as applied to appellant's activity, the Washington statute impermissibly infringed protected expression.


On May 10, 1970, appellant, a college student, hung his United States flag from the window of his apartment on private property in Seattle, Washington. The flag was upside down, and attached to the front and back was a peace symbol (i.e., a circle enclosing a trident) made of removable black tape. The window was above the ground floor. The flag measured approximately three by five feet and was plainly visible to passersby. The peace symbol occupied roughly half of the surface of the flag.

Three Seattle police officers observed the flag and entered the apartment house. They were met at the main door by appellant, who said: "I suppose you are here about the flag. I didn't know there was anything wrong with it. I will take it down." Appellant permitted the officers to enter his apartment, where they seized the flag and arrested him. Appellant cooperated with the officers. There was no disruption or altercation.

Appellant was not charged under Washington's flag desecration statute. See Wash.Rev.Code § 9.86.030, as amended.1 Rather, the State relied on the so-called

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"improper use" statute, Wash.Rev.Code § 9.86.020. This statute provides, in pertinent part:

No person shall, in any manner, for exhibition or display:

(1) Place or cause to be placed any word, figure, mark, picture, design, drawing or advertisement of any nature upon any flag, standard, color, ensign or shield of the United States or of this state . . . or

(2) Expose to public view any such flag, standard, color, ensign or shield upon which shall have been printed, painted or otherwise produced, or to which shall have been attached, appended, affixed or annexed any such word, figure, mark, picture, [94 S.Ct. 2729] design, drawing or advertisement. . . .2

Appellant initially was tried to the bench in a local Justice court, where he was found guilty and sentenced to 90 days' confinement, with 60 days suspended. Appellant exercised his right to be tried de novo in King County Superior Court, where he received a Jury trial.

The State based its case on the flag itself and the testimony of the three arresting officers, who testified that they had observed the flag displayed from appellant's window, and that on the flag was superimposed what they identified as a peace symbol. Appellant took

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the stand in his own defense. He testified that he put a peace symbol on the flag and displayed it to public view as a protest against the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State University, events which occurred a few days prior to his arrest. He said that his purpose was to associate the American flag with peace, instead of war and violence:

I felt there had been so much killing and that this was not what America stood for. I felt that the flag stood for America, and I wanted people to know that I thought America stood for peace.

Appellant further testified that he chose to fashion the peace symbol from tape so that it could be removed without damaging the flag. The State made no effort to controvert any of appellant's testimony.

The trial court instructed the jury, in essence, that the mere act of displaying the flag with the peace symbol attached, if proved beyond a reasonable doubt, was sufficient to convict. There was no requirement of specific intent to do anything more than display the flag in that manner. The jury returned a verdict of guilty. The court sentenced appellant to 10 days in jail, suspended, and to a $75 fine. The Washington Court of Appeals reversed the conviction. 5 Wash.App. 752, 490 P.2d 1321 (1971). It held the improper use statute overbroad and invalid on its face under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. With one justice dissenting and two concurring in the result, the Washington Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the conviction. 81 Wash.2d 788, 506 P.2d 293 (1973).


A number of factors are important in the instant case. First, this was a privately owned flag. In a technical property sense, it was not the property of any government.

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We have no doubt that the State or National Governments constitutionally may forbid anyone from mishandling in any manner a flag that is public property. But this is a different case. Second, appellant displayed his flag on private property. He engaged in no trespass or disorderly conduct. Nor is this a case that might be analyzed in terms of reasonable time, place, or manner restraints on access to a public area. Third, the record is devoid of proof of any risk of breach of the peace. It was not appellant's purpose to incite violence or even stimulate a public demonstration. There is no evidence that any crowd gathered or that appellant made any effort to attract attention beyond hanging the flag out of his own window. Indeed, on the facts stipulated by the parties, there is no evidence that anyone other than the three police officers observed the flag.

Fourth, the State concedes, as did the Washington Supreme Court, that appellant engaged in a form of communication. [94 S.Ct. 2730]3 Although the stipulated facts fail to show that any member of the general public viewed the flag, the State's concession is inevitable on this record. The undisputed facts are that appellant "wanted people to know that I thought America stood for peace." To be sure, appellant did not choose to articulate his views through printed or spoken words. It is therefore necessary to determine whether his activity was sufficiently imbued with elements of communication to fall within the scope of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, for as the Court noted in United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 376 (1968),

[w]e cannot accept the view that an apparently limitless variety of conduct can be labeled "speech" whenever the person engaging in the conduct intends thereby to express an idea.

But the nature of

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appellant's activity, combined with the factual context and environment in which it was undertaken, lead to the conclusion that he engaged in a form of protected expression.

The Court for decades has recognized the communicative connotations of the use of flags. E.g., Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359 (1931). In many of their uses, flags are a form of symbolism comprising a "primitive but effective way of communicating ideas . . . ," and "a short-cut from mind to mind." Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 632 (1943). On this record, there can be little doubt that appellant communicated through the use of symbols. The symbolism included not only the flag, but also the superimposed peace symbol.

Moreover, the context in which a symbol is used for purposes of expression is important, for the context may give meaning to the symbol. See Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). In Tinker, the wearing of black armbands in a school environment conveyed an unmistakable message about a contemporaneous issue of intense public concern -- the Vietnam hostilities. Id. at 505-514. In this case, appellant's activity was roughly simultaneous with and concededly triggered by the Cambodian incursion and the Kent State tragedy, also issues of great public moment. Cf. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232 (1974). A flag bearing a peace symbol and displayed upside down by a student today might be interpreted as nothing more than bizarre behavior, but it would have been difficult for the great majority of citizens to miss the drift of appellant's point at the time that he made it.

It may be noted, further, that this was not an act of mindless nihilism. Rather, it was a pointed expression of anguish by appellant about the then-current domestic and foreign affairs of his government. An intent to

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convey a particularized message was present, and in the surrounding circumstances the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.


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